Lawmakers from Vermont’s more rural districts are introducing a bill that would, among other things, ease Act 250 restrictions around the forest products industry.

H.581, “An act relating to rural economic development,” is an omnibus bill crafted by the House Rural Caucus using work done by the Rural Economic Development Working Group, which, over the summer, traveled the state talking to citizens connected to the state’s forest industry.

The bill can be tracked online at bit.ly/0114RuralBill, the legislature’s website. It would:

— Establish the Forest Future Program, a plan meant to strengthen, modernize, promote and protect the state’s forest products industry.

— Reduce the requirements for protecting primary agricultural soils for forest-based enterprises, and community wastewater systems that serve housing developments within designated centers.

— Ease restrictions around hours of operation for forest-based enterprises.

— Clarify Act 250’s jurisdiction over recreational trails.

— Create an Act 250 master plan permit for towns without designated village centers.

— Amend the Act 250 jurisdictional trigger for affordable housing in designated centers.

— Clarify the definition of “accessory on-farm business” and how they are regulated.

— Increase the allowable weight for large trucks and require the Department of Motor Vehicles to centralize an online permitting system by Jan. 1, 2023.

— Establish a Municipal Fuel Switching Grant Program that would financially help towns find renewable fuel sources for heating their buildings.

House Rep. Katherine Sims, D-Craftsbury, said at a news conference Thursday that the Forest Future Program would be modeled after the Farm to Plate Program, and “would work to support existing and potential forest space businesses that are working to sustainably manage Vermont’s forest land.”

Vermont should look at its forests in much the same way it has its farms, she said. This aspect of the omnibus bill would also further the Vermont Climate Action Plan.

Rep. Lucy Rogers, D-Waterville, said the rural working group heard quite often from people about how navigating Act 250 has been a barrier to the forest economy.

“The first section of the bill has to do with hours of operation, with the understanding that the forest based industry is very weather dependent, and especially with more extreme weather events coming to Vermont with climate change it becomes increasingly important that you are able to do work when the weather permits, whether that’s frozen logging roads in the winter or those few springs days, or often spring nights as the case may be, when it gets below freezing enough to safely drive a truck on the roads, so we are looking for language that would enable forest-based businesses to work at the appropriate hours of operation,” she said.

The bill also looks at easing the financial burdens associated with disrupting primary agricultural soil. Rogers said forest-based businesses often protect forest soil, even if they disrupt soil for agriculture.

The bill would also exempt certain forest-based enterprises from Act 250 regulation if they’re under a certain size.

Rep. Charles Kimbell, D-Woodstock, the bill’s lead sponsor, said he expects any numbers in the bill will be tweaked by the legislative committees looking at it.

Part of the omnibus bill would have pre-established recreational trails not governed by Act 250, Kimbell said.

“We really want to engage stakeholders in this process, and so what is proposed here is some ways that we might be able to do that engagement,” he said. “We’ll have some discussion about that later, but part of it is to also make sure that pre-established trail systems were not subject to Act 250 jurisdiction, so if they’re already in existence this is to allow them to continue in that way.”

The bill also would allow a community to establish an Act 250 master permit, even if it doesn’t have a designated village center. Kimbell said towns could work with outside consultants or their county’s regional planning commission.

“Access to affordable housing in rural communities starts with investments in water and wastewater infrastructure,” said Rep. Daniel Noyes, D-Wolcott. “We also need to encourage developers to invest in housing for families and older Vermonters.”

This part of the bill would remove permitting barriers for housing developments in village centers and the like, “where the towns have had discussions as to where and what type of development they want to see,” said Noyes.

According to Kimbell, a previous law making it easier to establish an accessory business on a farm could use some clarification.

“There’s been a lot of confusion among town development review boards and by applicants, and also the Natural Resources Board in interpreting how accessory on-farm businesses could be permitted,” he said. “The purpose of this section of the bill is to provide some greater clarity and to look at establishing the size of the development to one acre or less, to look at the size of a building that may be constructed if they’re not using an existing building to say 4,000 square feet or less, and to also say the accessory on-farm business does not necessarily have to be subordinate to the farm, but would have to generate no more revenue than $200,000 per year.”

Rogers said the trucking and transportation piece of the bill would increase the weight limits on six- and seven-axled vehicles, bringing them more in line with what’s allowed in New York. It also gives the Department of Motor Vehicles a date by which it has to create an online portal to manage municipal trucking permits. Rogers said the rural working group heard quite often from the forest industry that different towns all have varying permit requirements.

Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-West Dover, said the thermal fuel switching proposal found in the omnibus bill isn’t new to lawmakers.

“This part of our bill seeks to connect existing work that the Legislature has done through a state Energy Management Plan expansion we put together last year for municipalities,” she said. “Vermont municipalities own and maintain more than 7,000 old buildings that are really expensive to heat and have a large carbon footprint. With our commitment to meet 90% of the state’s total energy demand from renewables by 2050, 35% of Vermont’s thermal energy needs from wood head by 2030, we think that in order to meet our climate goals and protect the budgets in our rural communities we must compliment our weatherization efforts with support for municipalities to thermal fuel switch, including modern wood heat.”

This part of the bill expands existing programs and helps towns get better technical support in finding more efficient heating fuel, she said.

“The historic omnibus bill that we’re talking about today was created from testimony that was gathered in the field over the summer and fall as the Rural Caucus traveled the state learning about the various aspects of Vermont’s forest economy from our local practitioners,” she said earlier in the press conference.

The caucus is tripartisan and has around 40 members who meet regularly. It has existed for several election cycles now, according to Kimbell.

Rep. Martha Feltus, R-Lyndon, said Vermont’s rural areas depend on small employers and entrepreneurs, and have highly localized commercial networks and social services.

“Parts of this legislation, I think, will capitalize on the positive aspects of those parts of the rural areas, and I think ultimately it will help strengthen our entire state by making the rural areas stronger,” she said.

keith.whitcomb

@rutlandherald.com

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